Food processing incubator gears up


In response to market demand, a group of community leaders in Muskegon County is planning a $2 million development and training facility for the food processing industry.

With support from the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, Muskegon Community College and Muskegon Charter Township, the West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative is moving forward to create a food processing incubator and training development center for early stage and established food processors primarily in the beverage, fruit and vegetable industries.

The 12,000-square-foot FARM (food, agriculture, research, manufacturing) facility is planned for construction at the corner of Stebbins and Quarterline roads on the MCC campus. The facility will be owned by the Community Foundation through a land lease with MCC and operated by the WMSFPI, with support from Muskegon Area First.

The facility will contain four individual processing units that companies of any size can rent as they develop new products. The facility is meant for short-term development and training use, and after a project is complete, the company would return to its own facility for mass production.

The vision is that FARM will become a regional hub of learning, capacity building and new product development for food processors of all sizes in West Michigan.

“We definitely are looking at this as a regional asset for all the food processors around West Michigan to be able to use,” said Marty Gerencer, executive director of the West Michigan Processing Association, which houses the initiative

The latest stats from The Right Place show there are more than 230 food processing companies in West Michigan, accounting for nearly 19,000 jobs and contributing $1.5 billion to the regional economy. Among the companies are Roskam Baking, Kellogg's Snacks and Gerber.

“We have a lot of quality, local, fresh product here that is sold locally and regionally and throughout the world,” Gerencer said.

FARM was meant to help food processors as they work to modernize their products for a more health-conscious market. Processed foods typically have a reputation for being unhealthy, but it doesn’t have to be that way, Gerencer said.

“There are some highly processed foods that aren't healthy, but in many cases, processed food is just taking fresh food to a value-added state and can still be very healthy,” Gerencer said.

Companies are working to meet demands for trends such as organic and gluten free, as well as for generally healthier and more sustainable processing practices, and that’s what FARM will help them achieve.

Companies that use the flexible food processing production space will be able to work with experts and technically based educators to help develop innovations.

Besides helping workers develop the products themselves, people who use the facility also will have access to new technology that can offer new ways of processing.

“New technologies are going to be an important part of the future of food,” Gerencer said. “Those folks that have worked on new technologies want to share what they have with the food processors that will come through FARM.”

Those new technologies also will be showcased in some of the facility’s training forums, another offering FARM will have for professionals as well as students pursuing the joint food service certificate from MCC and Michigan State University.

The facility also will contain office space that will allow food processor support organizations and suppliers to be centralized in one key location, which will facilitate networking, collaboration and capacity building among the industry.

FARM is being built by Muskegon-based Port City Construction. Grand Rapids-based Progressive A&E was the architect on the project.

The funds for this partnership come from a state of Michigan appropriation. Former state Senator Geoff Hansen worked alongside the community organizations, with broad support from the West Michigan food processing industry.

Facility design and preparation are underway, and groundbreaking is planned for April 24, with occupancy planned by December.

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